‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ is a bit too much, and that’s great

Sunday, February 7, 2016 - 6:10pm

NOSELL

Lionsgate

 

The inside of this movie theater smells like socks and stale popcorn, except I don’t know that because I’m not here. Instead, I’m fully present in a zombified Regency-era England, and I’m getting scared of what might be moving around me in the dark. On the misty, grey moors outside of London proper, zombies are known to spring out of the woods at any passing carriage, hungry for the human brains that will complete their transformation into the undead. Like many girls their age, the Bennet sisters have completed their combat training in China, but now are entering into an equally difficult battle — trying to find suitable husbands amongst those still living.

“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” based on the parody novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, rewrites Jane Austen’s original novel with an underlying narrative of war between English society and the zombies that have arisen following the Black Plague. The film does not let this literary basis fall to the side, opening with the iconically mutated line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”

Gimmicky and gaudy, yes, but completely engrossing and fun nonetheless. The rest of the film upholds this strange crossover, taking itself just seriously enough to pull its audience in but not so seriously that it fails to indulge in the utterly ridiculous. The sets and costuming are elaborate, drawing out the grandeur of Bingely’s famed estate with candlelit dances and gilded parlor rooms and the Bennet sisters’ beauty in multihued silk gowns complete with matching dagger sheaths and flintlock muskets. These displays of splendor are complemented with equally gory scenes of zombie violence. In one scene the sisters fight in slow-motion through a ball overrun with the undead, cutting down decaying legs, slitting black-blooded throats and stomping in the skulls of everything that crosses them.

This dramatized focus on violence and extravagance trickles into the romantic plotline of the film as well, where Elizabeth (Lily James, “Downton Abbey”) and Darcy (Sam Riley, “Maleficent”) are caught verbally sparring so precisely in the original Austen book; here their words are accented by expert physical sparring as well. Their hatred for one another is undercut only by their respect for the others’ skills as a warrior, and their unfolding love story holds true to the original theme of the book. Where the film indulges visually and physically, it does the same romantically, and although their love story is cheesily over-dramatized at points, with both characters drawn to the point of ridiculousness, anything less would be overshadowed by the rest of the film.

The weird mash-up of the film’s premise works when considering the tone of repression and denial already present in Regency England. While it may seem strange that the society is still focusing on balls and engagements in the face of complete annihilation, it would also be strange to accept anything less from the strict social parameters of the time, where any discomfort is ignored for the sake of civility. The only time this careful balance between civil and gory seems to fall to the wayside is in the characterization of Lady Catherine (Lena Headey, “Game of Thrones”), whose strangeness the film could do without. In the book, Darcy’s aunt is an imposingly proper figure in society, and here is rewritten as masculine zombie-hunter extraordinaire who diverges from the careful construction of the other characters.

Watching “PPZ” in the theater, there is an equal mixture of screaming and laughing. For much of the film, I had a hard time closing my gaping mouth or looking away as brains flew across the screen or the leads kissed amid a burning town. After studying film for what will in April have been a full four years, I’ve come to accept that movies can be deemed “good” for any number of reasons, a huge one being simply that they’re fun to watch. “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is exactly this, and in a way holds everything a strange, indulgent and massively dramatized horror film should. With a hoard of brain eating zombies, impressively choreographed combat scenes, a pink wedding finale and a theater full of giggling girls cheering on the heroine to smash in the skull of the creatures around her, the fun of the movie dissolves most of the faults to be found.